Manchester United visit the Santiago Bernabeu in the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday and although Ferguson’s selection will be typically difficult to predict, there have been plenty of clues scattered through the season.
Ferguson has fielded the same team twice in succession only once this term, but it is around this time of year that he begins to settle on those players that he trusts for the big matches, and there is none bigger than Real Madrid.
One certainty is David De Gea in goal who has won his battle with Anders Lindegaard; once a case of who was less iffy, De Gea has now settled, and has invaluable experience in the Bernabeu with city rivals Atletico that Lindegaard can not call upon; the very words – ‘in’ the Bernabeu, as opposed to ‘at’ Old Trafford and most other stadiums – depicts the caldron that awaits.
At right-back Rafael has had his best season. He is no longer prone to an irrational second yellow card for a frustrated shirt-grab or miss-timed tackle. The Brazilian is 22 and maturing and his man of the match performance on Sunday against Everton showed as much, blunting the usually penetrative Baines-Pienaar partnership.
On the left Patrice Evra has been a revelation, in the opposite box at least. After five seasons of fruitless pilgrimage forward, removing Rio Ferdinand from attacking corners was no masterstroke but passing this duty to Evra has created a curious threat. Clearly the Frenchman has not been on many changing-room whiteboards, sneaking in unmarked to collect 4 goals and 6 assists.
Finally both Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidic are both fit and are expected to start at centre-back, the former apparently rested this weekend for the task.
Having them together is a boost for Ferguson but his best partnership this season has undoubtedly been Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick in midfield. United have lost just once when the English duo have started since the season opener at Everton. They are a well balanced pair, one bundle of excitable energy that compliments a reliable, passing metronome.
However, in Madrid there is a danger this midfield will lack the necessary steel and, if fit, Phil Jones appears primed to carry out this role. Jones has been selected twice in central midfield in 2013; at Tottenham numbing Gareth Bale’s penetration and on Sunday rendering Marouane Fellaini largely ineffective.
However, Jones left the field with an injury and is a doubt. He could again play the narky, ball-winning space-squeezer to hinder Cristiano Ronaldo’s progress and stifle playmaker Mesut Ozil. The little German has 13 assists this season and has grown into Ronaldo’s wily sidekick. To an extent he has become to the Portuguese what Andres Iniesta is to Lionel Messi.
A three-man central midfield of Jones, Cleverly and Carrick would give United’s leaky defence much needed protection and is a distinct possibility given Ferguson’s typical caution away in Europe. But if Jones is unavailable there will not be the personnel to play this way. Similarly Ferguson was forced to abandon his preferred three-man midfield when Darren Fletcher was suspended for the 2009 Champions League final in Rome; Barcelona abused the subsequent space afforded to them that night.
With three centrally then Rooney would play wide, but without Jones the alternative of Carrick and Cleverley sitting deep with Rooney just in front (essentially a 4-4-1-1) would bring the benefit of Rooney in his preferred ‘number 10’ role.
Wherever Rooney starts, his selfless team ethic will offer Ferguson flexibility should a change in shape be needed.
In crucial matches Ferguson prioritises work rate in the wide positions – think of the way he deployed Park Ji Sung almost exclusively in big European matches – so the reliable Antonia Valencia is likely to start. Valencia’s form has been questioned but he remains Van Persie’s most frequent supplier, providing four assists for the Dutchman, two more than Rooney or any other teammate.
In a 4-4-1-1 the left sided midfielder offers opportunity for surprise. Kagawa was omitted fully from the squad on Sunday, perhaps rested or perhaps hidden from watching Madrid manager Jose Mourinho sitting in the stands; out of sight, out of mind. Danny Welbeck was selected for England last week but has largely been out of favour this season for United, while selecting Ashley Young or Nani would a be positive – but uncharacteristic – move given Ferguson’s remit for hard work.
It is indicative of just how good Robin Van Persie has been for United that there is no debate up front – despite four top strikers at the club he is a certainty. Van Persie will be the lone striker and his brilliance will reassure Ferguson that his team can still threaten, even with a seemingly defensive set-up.
Spanish newspaper Marca have supposedly released the Madrid team to start the match, but given Ferguson’s penchant for surprise it is unlikely we will know his players, and how they will set-up, until kick off in the Bernabeu.
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